The Effect of Socioeconomic Status on Delinquency Across Urban and Rural Contexts

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
The Effect of Socioeconomic
Status on Delinquency Across
Urban and Rural Contexts: Using
a Genetically Informed Design
to Identify Environmental Risk
Eric J. Connolly
, Richard H. Lewis
, and Danielle L. Boisvert
An extensive line of research has demonstrated that low socioeconomic status (SES) is a risk factor
for adolescent delinquent behavior. The possibility that low SES affects adolescent’s risk for engaging
in delinquent behavior has garnered a significant amount of empirical and public attention, given its
implications for delinquency prevention. However, few studies have examined the association
between low SES and delinquent behavior across urban and rural contexts in the United States.
Moreover, much is unknown about the strength of the association between low SES and delinquency
across urban and rural context after controlling for common genetic liabilities that often cluster
within different levels of SES. The present study aimed to address these existing gaps in the literature
by conducting a genetically informed analysis of sibling pairs from a nationally representative sample
of U.S. youth. The results revealed that shared environmental factors accounted for 17% of the
population variation in adolescent delinquent behavior among adolescents growing up in urban
contexts, and 3% of this family-wide environmental effect was accounted for by SES. No evidence of
a family-wide environmental effect on population variation in delinquent behavior was found among
adolescents from rural contexts. Findings from the present study suggest that the association
between low SES and delinquency in urban contexts in the United States may be a true environ-
mental effect and highlight the utility of using genetically informed research designs to better
understand the extent to which social contexts influence adolescent delinquent behavior.
delinquency, socioeconomic status, behavior genetics, urban, rural
Department of Crimi nal Justice and Criminology, Coll ege of Criminal Justice, Sam Houst on State University, Huntsville,
Corresponding Author:
Eric J. Connolly, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, College of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University,
Huntsville, TX 77340, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2017, Vol. 42(3) 237-253
ª2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817724200
There is considerable evidence to demonstrate that low socioeconomic status (SES) is associated
with negative adolescent outcomes, including poor mental health and increased antisocial and
delinquent behaviors (Devenish, Hooley, & Mellor, 2017; Piotrowska, Stride, Croft, & Rowe,
2015; Reiss, 2013). Several factors common to low SES areas can increase the likelihood of
individuals’ participatio n in delinquent behavior. For ex ample, the lack of monetary abili ty to
acquire needed goods and services can increase delinquent involvement to reduce economic strain
(Agnew, Matthews, Bucher, Welcher, & Keyes, 2008). Other risk factors include parental stress
from raising children in poverty, a lack of parental supervision, living in neighborhoods with
increased concentration of poor schools, and increased exposure to delinquent peers and criminal
gangs (Costello, Keeler, & Angold, 2001). Furthermore, recent research has found that exposure to
environmental toxins such as lead, which has been linked to cognitive deficits and criminal behavior
(Boutwell et al., 2016; Wright et al., 2008), are more common in neighborhoods characterized by
low SES and social disadvantage. Recent events in Flint, Michigan provide a clear example of this
where children in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods experienced the largest increase
in blood lead levels from 2013 to 2015 compared to children in less disadvantaged neighborhood
environments (Hanna-Attisha, LaChance, Sadler, & Shnepp, 2016). Ultimately, an aggregate of
negative factors associated with low SES may accumulate over time to increase the likelihood of
adolescent delinquent behavior and future criminality.
Although a great deal of research has revealed that youth growing up in low SES urban environ-
ments are exposed to weak social institutions (e.g., collective efficacy, community organizations,
and public schooling) and opportunities for offending (e.g., easy access to criminal gangs, lack of
supervision, easy access to firearms), much less is known about whether and to what extent the link
between low SES and delinquency remains for adolescent youth growing up in rural environments.
Only recently have researchers begun to explore the varying eff ects of low SES on adolescent
delinquency across urban and rural contexts. Contemporary research flowing from this body of
work suggests that low SES is indeed associated with delinquent behaviors across both urban and
rural environmental contexts (Bouffard & Muftic, 2006; Jiang, Sun, & Marsiglia, 2016). However,
no research to date has controlled for genetic liabilities that often cluster within families nested
within different levels of SES. Given that variation in antisocial and delinquent behavior has been
found to be heritable (Boisvert, Wright, Knopik, & Vaske, 2012; Connolly & Beaver, 2014; Fergu-
son, 2010; Miles & Carey, 1997; Rhee & Waldman, 2002), it is critical to control for the confound-
ing effects of genetic factors that cluster within families. Using a genetically informed design can
allow for a better understanding of how specific social environments, such as low SES, are impli-
cated in the development of adolescent delinquent behavior across geographic context.
The Link Between Low SES and Delinquent Behavior Across Urban and
Rural Contexts
Considering the concentration of poverty in inner-city environments, many of the early studies
concerning delinquency and low SES focused on urban populations (Bursik, 1988; Sampson, Mor-
enoff, & Earls, 1999). In 1981, Lyerly and Skipper examined differential rates of urban and rural
delinquency and found that males from urban areas were more likely to fall into the highly delin-
quent category. Specifically, of the urban sample, 68%of males were ranked as highly delinquent
while only 32%of the rural males were similarly categorized (Lyerly & Skipper, 1981). Other
studies have shown similar findin gs that when lower socioeconomic ur ban and rural areas are
compared, urban youths exhibit higher levels of delinquency. For instance, Farrell, Sullivan, Espo-
sito, Meyer, and Valois (2005) sampled 667 urban students and 301 rural students as part of a
violence prevention program in middle schools and found that urban students exhibited higher levels
of aggression, drug use, and delinquency compared to rural students. They also found that urban
238 Criminal Justice Review 42(3)

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